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Obama, Notre Dame, and Abortion

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. Professor Lim’s columns are usually up on Mondays, but our lovely blog editor is on vacation, so please excuse our tardiness this week. In the article below he looks at Obama and the issue of abortion. Read his previous OUPblogs here.

The pro-lifers single-mindedly protesting President Barack Obama’s receipt of an honorary degree from Notre Dame University have reduced the Catholic Catechism to a single issue. And it is precisely in the single-mindedness of such pro-life proponents that it can be showed that their concern is not, ultimately, about life.

The President is on the right side of Catholicism on immigration and the environment, just as previous Presidents Notre Dame has honored have been on the wrong side of the Church on issues like capital punishment and support for nuclear weapons. To pick on the current president is to pick one particular issue as the litmus test of a person’s contribution to advancing human excellence (the qualification for a honorary degree).

That is myopic, but worse still, many pro-lifers proffer their arguments in bad faith, or so Professor Sonu Bedi at Dartmouth argues (28:15 onwards). If opponents of abortion want to make the State compel women to carry their fetuses to term, Sonu Bedi compellingly asks: why don’t pro-lifers also demand that the State compels citizens who are uniquely situated to save a particular life to do so?

The latter are what Bedi calls “forced samaritan laws.” As Judith Jarvis Thomson made clear decades ago, a law prohibiting abortion is a forced samaritan law, because a woman considering abortion would be told by the State that she must perform her duty of preserving a life.

Fair enough. Perhaps we should legislate such a world, but the truth is we have not, and are not even trying. In the Common Law of the US, there is, in general, no duty to rescue. That is to say, no person can be held liable for doing nothing while another person’s life is in peril. In Vermont, one can be slapped with a $100 fine if one is uniquely positioned to save a life but fails to do so. Consider the glaring asymmetry of the law: $100 versus $2000-5000 in Texas if a woman is found to have undergone an illegal abortion.

Ah, but as the rejoinder goes, perhaps a woman has consented to sex and perhaps that is why she has a special duty to the child she helped create, and not so for the random passer-by who chooses not to save a drowning child. OK, (assuming consenting to sex is the same as consenting to procreation) why don’t we talk about laws alongside abortion laws that will also exact commensurate obligations on the father who also consented to the sexual intercourse that begot the child? Why are we so quick to pin consent and duty squarely on the woman seeking an abortion? Pro-lifers who seek laws against abortion but not laws for forced samaritanism are too quick to dismiss the immense physical and emotional costs of child-bearing that women have silently borne for millennia. And if they care only about protecting one type of life (and burdening only one group of people), then surely they are not, paradoxically, truly concerned about life but about something else, such as the preservation of traditional roles in the family.

If we value life, then we should dedicate our lobbying energy to saving any life writ large that is in imminent peril, and not merely the life in the womb. The burden of being pro-life should be equally born by all. Not only by women. If we are to be pro-life, then let us be pro-all-life, not just those lives that only women are uniquely privileged/burdened to save.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen White

    The Church teaches, and has always taught, that procured abortion is always and everywhere a grave evil. No exceptions. Ever.
    The same cannot be said of the Church’s teaching on war, immigration law, environmental protection, or even capital punishment.

    The Church emphasises the sandtity of life because ALL OTHER social justice depends upon it. If human life has value only according to law, and not in and of itself, then the innocent have no defense against the caprice of the powerful. If the woth of someone’s life can be written out of the law books, even at the will of teh majority, the society itself is in peril. The blood baths of 20th century should have taught us taht at the very least.

  2. gloriamundi

    It is not a debate unless your opponent uses civility, logic, context, factual accuracy, and addresses your legitimate points. Every single experience I have had with the pro-life contingent has shown that they are not capable of debate. When I try to participate in comments threads with these people, I end up feeling brutalized, date-raped, and blamed for it all over again! The essay I wrote on the topic is published on newsvine.

  3. Zach

    The problem with this argument is that the person who does nothing to save a life when they could has done just that – nothing. A woman who seeks an abortion is performing an action. From a moral standpoint, they may be equally bad, but the law is incapable of making such a distinction.

  4. gloriamundi

    In the comments thread following the Minneaplois Star Tribune ” Editorial: Obama’s abortion ‘common ground’,” on May. 20, 09 at 7:04 pm I posted the same comment you see above, posted here yesterday. The following post on the Tribune thread by dankoz on May. 20, 09 at 8:58 pm WAS A FIRST in that dankoz was the FIRST pro-lifer on a comments thread to address a comment I made WITHOUT ATTACKING ME! YES! He actually showed empathy for me and was willing to admit his frustration with the Catholic clergy’s support of the war and of the mechanisms that increase the divide between the poor and the wealthy in this country!!!! Maybe dankoz is one of the rare Christians actually following Christ! Don’t you other pro-lifers see that your approach is what polarizes the debate and drives women to Planned Parenthood, which unfortunately doesn’t really offer options! Like others were saying, nobody is “pro-abortion”! We all agree that it is a tragic last option when the other options are likely to perpetuate poverty or tie a woman to a man she is better off without. Pro-lifers just absolutely need to quit screaming and implying “Murderer!” and work on mitigating the social ills that cause a woman to want an abortion!

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